As the war entered its fourth winter in December 1864 residents in several Illinois towns worked together to collect special food and medical supplies to be sent to local boys in the field, and to distribute stocks of food, clothing, and firewood to the families of soldiers and sailors away in service. Efforts to help military families had begun in many parts of the state in 1861, but became ever more important as wartime inflation and the long absence of breadwinners brought real suffering to many.
For the boys in service
As U.S. armies confidently crossed the Confederate heartland after Sherman’s September capture of Atlanta, stocks of special medical supplies and foods remained in great demand; the months from May to September had seen heavy fighting and long lists of wounded. The folks at home continued to collect such goods and cash that could purchase them by holding regional sanitary fairs, modelled on the giant exposition held in Chicago in 1863. During the months of November and December 1864 such events were held in Ottawa (La Salle County), Sparta (Randolph County), Jacksonville (Morgan County), and Elmwood (Peoria County). Women of Peoria’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, becoming an auxiliary to the Ladies’ Soldiers’ Relief Society, also staged benefit entertainment.
A special effort was made to prepare a stockpile of goods on the Atlantic coast of Georgia to meet the army of William T. Sherman, who had cut loose from his base of supply to “live off the land” as it slashed its way through the state. They were to be joined by POWs who had escaped the notorious Andersonville, Georgia, prison stockade. The Illinois Sanitary Commission sent barrels of donated “onions, pickles, kraut, dried fruit and potatoes,” to meet the Illinois heroes in Sherman’s force.
For soldiers on duty near Springfield, local ladies created good cheer at the downtown Soldiers’ Home with “an old fashioned New England” Thanksgiving dinner. One of the highlights of the meal was “a large turkey… handsomely roasted, decorated and labeled ‘Roasted in Honest Old Abe’s Stove.'” It had been provided by Lucretia Tilton, a leader of the Springfield Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society and whose family rented President Lincoln’s house. After the meal men sang “Battle Cry of Freedom” “with great spirit” and offered three cheers for Lincoln and three more for the loyal ladies of Springfield.
For the families at home
Many families of men in service found life increasingly difficult after years of their breadwinners being absent in the service. Military pay was poor—in 1864 the pay of privates had been raised to $16 per month—and wartime inflation made supporting a family difficult. Winters proved especially trying due to the high cost of fuel for cooking and heating. As one Illinois newspaper noted, “the families of our soldiers… have peculiar claims upon the fostering care of all loyal men and women. In consequence of the great advance in the cost of all articles needed for clothing or sustenance, the pay of a soldier is often totally inadequate to the support of a family. This evil is often greatly increased by delay on the part of the Government in paying the troops… and the difficulty of making remittances with safety. But the cases which present the greatest hardship are to be found in families in which the husband or father is pining in a rebel prison, or has already fallen a sacrifice in the service of his country.”
Groups of Springfield residents in December 1864 again worked together to bring at least some relief to needy military families. The Journal called for December 31 to be a donation day. In addition to appeals to patriotism, charity as a function of faith was also invoked by Psalm 41: “‘Blessed is he that considereth the Poor, the Lord will deliver him in the time of trouble.'” “Anything suitable to subsist a family will be acceptable.” Stocks of firewood, coal, flour, meat, potatoes, clothing, and vegetables were especially desired, though “money will not be refused.”
Through to the end
Efforts to aid soldiers’ families, whether through the effort of local government or private action, continued to war’s end. Strawberry parties and local sanitary fairs raised cash. Springfield’s Loyal League held socials in each of the city’s wards right to the end of 1865, while the Springfield Soldiers’ Aid Society continued its work in the hospitals of Camp Butler until their closing. Though by May 1865 fighting had ended, a great imperative remained: “Let all resolve to do something to gladden the hearts of soldiers’ families, as some slight expression of their gratitude to the men who have periled their lives in defence of the Union.”